Shortly after Kevin Rahm joined the cast of Mad Men, I was lucky enough to have a friend (virtually) introduce us. Since that time it’s been something of a Mutual Admiration Society, peppered with we-really-need-to-do-an-interview-one-of-these-days moments. So I wasn’t shocked when Kevin agreed to do the interview via Skype, and it made for a more fluid and fun conversation. See translation: Fluid and fun also means we ran long. You’re getting Part 1 now, and Part 2 middle of next week, as a reprieve from the wails and WHYYYS of the post-finale frenzy. The show will end, but The Basket will be alive and well for years and years to infinity, with fresh material–like Part 2 of this interview!
Kevin and I spent about five minutes being happy to meet each other and getting settled (me checking recording devices and such), and talking about:
1. The fundraiser he’d just done the day before in Louisiana for The Academy of Children’s Theatre (ACT), which he could not say enough great things about–like how he got involved because his niece was a student there; like how fantastic the co-founder Cynthia Whitaker was; like how 90% of the students go on to get full scholarships and almost all–if not all–the rest get partial scholarships.
2. How it was he knew our mutual friend, Bob Bergen. Kevin worked with the late beloved actress Kathryn Joosten on Desperate Housewives–she won an Emmy for her performance as Mrs. McCluskey (I adored every moment she was onscreen on The West Wing). Ms. Joosten served, along with Bob Bergen, as a Governor of TV Academy’s Performers Peer Group. She encouraged Kevin to join the Academy–he hadn’t known it was an option. At her funeral, Kevin approached Bob and asked him how he might help, and from there he became active in the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences’ Performers Peer Group, with Bob as something of a mentor.
(As for me, I’d studied voice acting with Bob awhile back, taking his workshops several times. Kevin and I agreed he is among the nicest humans alive.)
3. Then there was this whole thing about our mantras. His is “Don’t be an asshole,” which he actually presented to the kids at ACT as “Don’t be a butthead,” and mine is “Suck less,” which, coincidentally, really helped me the last time I worked with Bob Bergen. This all led to….
Kevin Rahm:I had a couple of moments like that when I was on the set of Mad Men, where I was just, Oh, God, I suck so much; this is so bad. Which is daunting. It’s daunting walking into that world. My favorite quote–my first big role, the one that changed me where I was like, okay,I’m an actor now–was Waiting for Godot. It was at Brigham Young University, I was a freshman in college, 21 years old or 22, and Todd Parmley, who’s still one of my best friends, played Vladimir and I played Estragon, and I got a great poster. It was the back of Beckett’s head and onstage is Lucky and Pozzo, and the quote from Beckett is “No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
Roberta Lipp: Love.
KR: Right? It’s the more positive version of “Suck less”.
RL: I don’t say “suck less” as much because I have become more positive over the years.
KR: I think you have to. When I read Waiting for Godot I didn’t know what I was getting into. I wanted to be an actor and I knew that there was a 4-hander, all guys, and it was going to be in this small space and I thought, I’ll audition for that one. I’d never read it, didn’t read it, auditioned for it, got the part, and then sat down and read it and thought, What have I done.
RL: (laughing) What have you gotten into.
KR: What am I doing, I don’t understand this, I don’t get it. And luckily our professor, who was the director, was a Beckett scholar and had been to Ireland and seen all the Beckett plays and studied Beckett so he understood it intrinsically. But without him we were lost–Bob Nelson, who’s now the head of the program at University of Utah.
RL: So was it like, oh god this is what I want to do, this is it, this is what I can do?
KR: I was telling the kids the other night, I kind of got thrown into it in high school. I didn’t take it seriously at all, I got kicked out of two plays for missing dress rehearsals because I went to like a Beach Boys concert….
KR: I just didn’t take it seriously. I didn’t care. But I was well received by doing it, and they would get mad at me because I wasn’t trying, and could get away with it. And then I got to college and my intent was to go to law school. I had no plan on being an actor. I saw a play in college–Talley’s Folly by Lanford Wilson, with this woman named Kim Abunuwara. She had a small supporting role in the original Footloose. If you go back and watch the Footloose she was one of the best friends of the main girl.
She was a local Utah actress and she got cast in the thing and A) She was gorgeous, and B) She was really talented. I saw her do Talley’s Folly and I said, Oh. That’s what it’s supposed to be. So I saw the potential of what good acting was in a good production and I thought, I should try that. I could try that while I’m here. I’ll regret it if I don’t. I’ll always look back and think What if. So she was teaching a beginner acting class and I went and took her class and I never looked back.
I did a couple of productions of student director things, and that summer I was cast as the cab driver in Harvey, (Kevin and I detoured here discussing how Rich Sommer had played the orderly in Harvey on Broadway a few summers ago), and the next big part I had was Estragon–“Gogo” in Waiting for Godot. That was the big turning point. But I never looked back. Immediately I was in the acting program and I pretty much quit going to school at that point. I would take theatre classes and a psychology class but I pretty much stopped going to school, and years later had not taken junior English. I had taken freshman English junior year because a friend of mine was teaching it.
RL: You lasted longer than me–I was a theatre major and I didn’t graduate.
KR: I didn’t either, I quit. I moved to LA. Well first of all, I was at BYU and I didn’t want to be there anymore. I didn’t belong there anymore. And my best friend Todd Parmley, from Godot, was going to grad school, my other best friend Mira Yinis was leaving–she was going to New York, and I was like, I can’t be here anymore. I have a year left of just general education. I was already working, I was already getting jobs in Utah–the local film market–and I was like, I’m done. I’m outta here. So I quit. I was telling the kids last night Don’t quit, finish.
RL: Stay in school, kids.
We then started talking about Matthew Weiner–I tell him how I’ve seen him at all these appearances recently, including the night before, where he discussed how the episode themes emerge.
KR: He’s so smart. He’s so smart. He’s so smart! It’s annoying. It really is. And his recall–he remembers crazy stuff. His facility for recall is amazing to me. If you think about what’s lacking in film and television, it’s good story. And I think that’s what’s separating Mad Men–it allowed executives to go to story again.
RL: So naturally, I’ve been brushing up on The Ted Chaough story. Did you watch the show before?
KR: About Season 2, it was all the hype, and everyone was talking about it and I watched one episode in the middle of Season 2 and I thought, auhh, this pretentious bullshit. What is this; this is so, aww come on, this is slow and boring.
RL: Oh that’s funny.
KR: And I had told my manager that and she was like, A) You’re wrong; you should never say that in public, and B) You should go back to the beginning and watch the show.
RL: I think S2 was the biggest struggle. I think it’s true in these really great dramas, often.
KR: Right. Well they have really great first seasons, they find themselves….that’s what happened with Bates Motel. Season 1 was strong, Season 2 dropped a little bit, and then Season 3….
RL: I really love Bates Motel.
KR: The stuff between Norman and Norma is just so good. She is so good; they’re so good together. And they are killing it with the writing; the change that’s happening with him and watching that. When I heard about Bates Motel I thought, what an interesting idea–how the hell is that a series? What do you do for more than a year? For more than an episode? What do you do? We already know where he ends up, so what do you do? And that’s my shortsightedness.
RL: All of it. How do you update it? We’ve created these modern myths. I feel like it started back with Lois and Clark. And we recycle and recycle. And I thought, It’s a great idea, but really? And I couldn’t believe how smart it was.
KR: Right. That’s Kerry Ehrin; she’s the creator. And Carlton Cuse as well; he’s her show-runner/producer. Having the two of them–because they have very different perspectives and perceptions. Male and female point of view, and….just the way her mind works. It’s so funny, I did a pilot with her last year–this is kind of how [the opportunity of] Bates Motel came around–Nicki Descono, who was a writer on Season 2, wrote a pilot, and I was in her pilot, and Kerry was there. And in Kerry’s mind, you just write it. You just go home and write the dialogue; it just comes out. And her dialogue is so clean and so precise and so easy off the tongue. And to her, that’s just the way you do it. She doesn’t realize what a gift that is; I don’t think.
But watching Freddie [Highmore] and Vera [Farmiga] together? With that writing and that story? It’s crazy good.
RL: She’s the one I cannot take my eyes off. I mean, I didn’t know her before this. I knew who she was, but I never see anything. She had this line the other night–the way she mutters and throws things away? It’s masterful.
KR: Right? And by the way? If you watch her in takes, it’s different. It’s repeatedly different, and new, and fresh. She threw one of the script supervisors off recently, she took this weird pause, and was looking at the other actor, and the script supervisor said her line, and she said, No, I know; and went right back into it. And this happened with her in particular: a couple of scenes this year, where in the scene, on my coverage, I caught myself watching her as a fan, as opposed to being in the scene with her. I had to mentally go like, Oh yeah, oh what?
RL: Focus. Sinister. Gloves.
KR: Back to What are we doing? What do you want? Because she’s so fascinating to watch. And so facile. I mean her facility is amazing. It’s so much fun to watch live. I’m always interested to watch which version they picked to show.
Hamm’s that way too. Where he could do it the same way every time, and I think he’s said this in the press; That’s boring. They already have that. That’s the thing about film, is if I did it that way once, and they have it, and it worked, now we can do something else. And Slatts is the same way–Slattery. John Slattery is the same way. And same with Lizzie [Elizabeth Moss]. That whole cast. People keep asking me What’s the best show, and it’s got to be Mad Men. A large part of it was the group of people. Rich [Sommer] and Aaron [Staton] and Jay [Jay R. Ferguson] who I’ve known for ten years.
RL: I love him. I just love him! (I’d just watched Time & Life, so that love was freshly upped.)
KR: Right? How good is Jay; to be opposite of Lizzie. I was so upset when Chaough went to California just because it meant I wasn’t going to get to work with Lizzie as much anymore. I loved the story; I love where it took the story and I love what it did to her character and what it did to Chaough–that’s more interesting obviously, and they’re smart for doing that, but I personally was like, Oh no. I loved working with Lizzie so much.
She seems to me to be an incredibly giving actor.
I think she’s incapable of lying on camera. That’s how I would describe her acting. And I went and saw The Heidi Chronicles when I was in New York shooting Madam Secretary, and even on stage–she’s incapable of lying. And I unfortunately can. I try not to, but sometimes I allow what I think is supposed to happen interfere with what’s actually happening. This has been a theme in my acting career. I can read it and go Oh, this is what they want–and then try to do that–as opposed to be true to my point of view and what’s happening–especially in theater. What’s actually happening in that moment.
One of the interesting things about theater is you go from A to B but sometimes it’s like this and sometimes it does this (um, we were skyping, there were hand motions) and sometimes that’s not working and you have to do something else.
RL: Also in theater a lot of times it’s about the reveal. Like sometimes the whole story’s already happened and the drama is in us finding it out.
KR: Right, right. I think Lizzie’s not capable of lying. She’s genuine to her core, when she’s on stage and on camera. And off camera–Lizzie–when we shot that scene where I tell her that I’m going to California–first of all it was torturous to me personally because even on my coverage I would stop, and I didn’t want to hurt her anymore, you know? I didn’t want to hurt Lizzie anymore. I was like No, it’s okay, it’s okay…. I’m not gonna really…. sorry, sorry. And she’s very giving; very giving that way.
RL: It’s one of the things Matt said on the panel; at the only one [in New York] this tour that included actors. (This was Lincoln Center with Jon Hamm, January Jones, Christina Hendricks, and John Slattery) Matt was talking about putting people through stuff. It was this whole discussion about how during Season 4, with Don’s drinking, and Jon went to Matt at and said, How much worse does it get, and Matt’s response of, A little bit worse. He told the audience, I’m always aware and I’m responsible as a writer. And when you say, she’s gonna cry–she’s gonna cry. And you’re putting somebody through that. I’ve never heard an actor talk about this before.
KR: Oh yeah. Whenever we were shooting a scene, the question was always, What do the instructions say? We call the script The Instructions, because they were very specific about stage direction. And a lot of times, in television especially, and even in film, they’re just like, Well that’s what it says, but what can we do here–whereas on that show, they didn’t write it willy nilly. There was a reason for the stage direction, so those were the instructions. So we followed the instructions. And so if they say “he cries” or “she cries,” there was a reason for it, and it was informative, and it helped us play the scene to their desires.
RL: That’s really cool. So, you were a Mad Men dabbler….
KR: Yeah, so she’d said Go back and watch; just give it two or three episodes. And two days later I had watched everything that was out there at the time. I couldn’t stop. My wife was doing her residency–I think she was at Redlands at the time–and I would go out there when I wasn’t working and I would have days off just sitting in this apartment in the middle of–in the Inland Empire and I ended up watching the first two seasons in like two days. Then you get to that episode that I had watched in the middle, and it means so much more, and they can take their time because they had earned it; it wasn’t just pretentious time-taking. There was a reason for the long reveal on the shot. And then when I auditioned I was a fan and I was nervous. Whereas Jay was lucky enough to have never seen the show. He knew it was important, but he’d never seen it.
The first time I was on set I was with Jon. Hamm. It was on location so it was very separate.
We were at a fake Benihana and I had to come in and immediately mess with him. And I had never met Jon before and I met him–he’s already in his Draper outfit and so from my point of view I’m meeting Draper, and Jon’s taller than I am, he’s a big guy and I was like holy cow, how am I the guy who’s gonna mess with him?
RL: He’s kind of like meeting Superman, isn’t he? And you do mess with him, I just watched that scene.
KR: It was so much fun.
RL: Oh my god you came on–I’d forgotten and that’s why I wanted to go back. I just remembered everybody hated him and I hated him and what was that? So I watched again and I was like, Riiight ‘cause you were total arrogance.
KR: Yeah and I loved the perception because I never saw Chaough as a bad guy. I never even thought of him as a bad guy. I thought of him as a rival and I thought of him as an equal and when it aired finally and people were like Who is this asshole and I was like what?
RL: Ohh. Because it had always been from the point of view of Sterling Cooper. But you’re right; you’re playful and you’re just being how you’re being, and they would be the same way. But you’re right, that’s what I saw too. And watching now, knowing where you go I was like oh, that’s just because we’re listening to our guys and their point of view.
KR: It’s just someone else’s point of view for the first time.
RL: Really interesting. And it’s all interesting about this form of storytelling too. The actors have said to me I don’t read your stuff until after because as an actor it’s not my job to know the themes, right? Your job is to know what Ted wants.
KR: Yeah. Be in the moment. That’s it. Follow the instructions and be in the moment. People are always asking, were you thinking about….? And I’m like, no. You can’t act a theme. You can’t play a theme.
RL: You cannot. You can’t.
KR: It can be informative sometimes, like if that’s the theme then that choice doesn’t necessarily work but you can’t play a theme.
RL: When we spoke with Jennifer Getzinger and she talked about earlier Megan scenes, and how she hadn’t been told this was the future Mrs. Draper, and fortunately a little birdie slipped it to her–there’s playing the present, but there’s also making sure you get a good shot of someone who will wind up important.
Okay. So you and Jay came on around the same time–was it the same episode?
KR: If it wasn’t the same episode, it was his second. My first, his second, or we came in at the same time, I can’t remember. But I remember walking into that room, that table read, which was very daunting, and I saw Jay and I thought Okay, someone I know. And then I saw Slatts, and he and I had worked together briefly on Desperate Housewives. And he went, Kevin, c’mere, and he introduced me to the main cast, and really was kind and it was unnecessary, but I was very grateful. And so I feel like I had some people on my side.
KR: It’s funny I was looking at your artwork that bit of fan art you have on your Twitter and I was thinking that it’s fully evolved because back in the beginning it was a different chorus, right? It was Aaron [Staton], and Rich [Sommer], and Bryan [Batt], and Michael [Gladis], so that’s really been….you’re the guys now.
RL: It’s so nice.
Isn’t he wonderful? Next week, Part 2. So much more to come.